Last year, the prelude to spring training was an exercise in sheer frustration for Vols fans. A seemingly never-ending series of DUIs, a public intoxication, and the eensy-teensy little affair of driving a recruit around with lit weed in a car left all of us a little out of sorts, and even had Joel unusually wound up. In hindsight, Joel actually had one of the most profound lines of the year when he wrote this:
Seriously, y'all can lose games, and I'll still support you, but I really don't want to be associated with a team full of crap like this.
(Lose they did, support we did, and talking like Yoda we ended up. But wow, what a way to put your money where your mouth is, eh?)
Shortening the story, there were many incidents, but they scored low on the Fulmer Cup scale that Orson controls. The deceptively low cumulative tally told far less than the gaudy number of events however: this was a team that wasn't spending the offseason taking care of itself. While most players were behaving, a substantial number weren't thinking about the potential effects of their actions and the image of the entire program was taking a huge hit. (Hint: it's bad enough that Orson could justify naming the award after Fulmer, even being a Gator fan. But when you explain the point system at the beginning of the Cup season, and then get to use Tennessee as the case study, it's a long, long road ahead.) It's a large part of the reason Jameel Owens signed with Oklahoma instead of Tennessee. Look him up if you don't remember.
This year, things are completely different so far. Perhaps it was the pre-spring practice workout sessions that kept them too tired to make trouble. Maybe they felt like they had to lay low while Kiffin kept his mouth open - kind of a yin-yang thing. Quite possibly, the presence of NFL grandmaster Monte Kiffin and the been-there-done-that-starred-in-the-book background of Ed Orgeron intimidated them into behaving.
Or perhaps this team is really focusing on being a team this offseason. We keep hearing talk from the coaches and from the players about how they're always "competing" and working toward becoming a championship-level team. The practice sessions are supposedly very intense, with everybody thinking they have a legitimate chance to increase their playing time in the fall. We've seen seven players leave the team under various circumstances, but none of them came at the back end of a police blotter. Maybe it's all true, and maybe they're really telling us something.
That this team is focused on the future, not the weekend.
We'll see. It's a long offseason and the summer session has just started. Yes, they're already beginning their summer routines and have workout plans laid out. The strength and conditioning staff will be with them and the football staff will undoubtedly keep their ears and eyes open on their charges, even if they can't actually coach right now. But there are still warm evenings, cool nights, extended-hour days, and all the outdoor trappings and city life attractions of Knoxville and the East Tennessee region laid out before the players. The players are now entering the most temptation-filled time of the year, when it's easiest to slack on playbook studies and hit the night life scene. (And if they need a hobby, the offer is still open.)
But I'm happy to applaud them for a clean, incident-free stretch from the end of the regular season to the end of spring practice. And I'm happy to give Lane Kiffin credit where credit is due. Whatever he's doing with the players, they're not getting in trouble. That's a far sight better than last year.